By the Waters of Babylon Summary
by Stephen Vincent Benét

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By the Waters of Babylon Summary

"By the Waters of Babylon" is a post-apocalyptic story about humanity's relationship with technology.

  • The remnants of humanity have gathered into tribes and cling to superstitions for survival.
  • Newly-initiated priest John travels to the Dead Lands, a wasteland that only priests are allowed to visit.
  • In the Dead Lands, John encounters the corpse of a "god" and realizes that he is actually in the ruins of a city and that the gods were just humans, killed by their own hubris.
  • He plans to bring the ruined city's technologies back to his people, believing that they will use the knowledge more wisely than their predecessors.


"By the Waters of Babylon" tells the story of a young man named John who belongs to a tribe called the Hill People. John is the son of a priest, and he is initiated into the priesthood himself when he comes of age. According to the laws of his tribe, all persons are forbidden to travel east to what is called the Dead Place, or the Place of the Gods. Priests are allowed to travel there, but only to collect metal, and when they return, they must be purified. John, however, has an insatiable curiosity about the gods, and he has visions of the Dead Place. This place was once a great city that was destroyed by a great burning. According to the lore of his tribe, since the burning, the place has been inhabited by spirits and demons.

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As part of his initiation into the priesthood, John travels to the Dead Place. He crosses an abandoned highway and a river, and he finally arrives at the forbidden city, which is a post-apocalyptic New York. John learns that the secrets the priests had told him about this Dead Place are not true, and in fact, the items in the city are not magical objects of the gods, but modern appliances and machines that were destroyed in the apocalypse. Similarly, the gods are not gods but were simply men who abused their knowledge and abilities and caused destruction to the world.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Forest People compete with the Hill People, who have slightly more advanced skills in spinning wool, hunting, and using metals. The priests of the Hill People have not forgotten the old writings and have some knowledge of healing—such as how to stop bleeding. Bound by superstition and taboos based on experience, tribe members are forbidden to go east, cross the great river, enter the Dead Places, or touch metal not purified by priests. These strictures have been in force throughout tribal memory. In addition, the people fear spirits and demons and have an ancestral memory of a “Great Burning.”

A young member of the Hill People, the narrator has studied for the priesthood under his father. He has learned chants, spells, and medical secrets, and has made dangerous journeys searching for metal in spirit houses. Now he has come of age and has reached the time of initiation and spirit journey. He undergoes purification rites, answers questions about his dreams, and tells his father about the vision that he sees in the smoke of the fire. His vision is of a gigantic Dead Place in its time of glory; although his father fears that his son’s strong dream will eat him up, he sends his son on the journey of discovery required as the final initiation into the priesthood. After fasting, the young man awaits a sign. After he sees an eagle flying east and kills a...

(The entire section is 778 words.)